‘There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of joy’: Kyle Abraham on the family parties that inspired his new dance show

Best known for tackling subjects such as injustice and violence, the choreographer is channelling happier memories with An Untitled Love

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1980s and 90s, Kyle Abraham was surrounded by music and dancing. “My parents are very social people. Ironically, I’m not,” the choreographer says, on a video call from his Brooklyn apartment. “They would have a lot of parties where people would come over and play cards, and my mother had birthday clubs with her girls and they would always have a big event. There were parties at the black-owned roller-skating rink, which was a big part of my childhood.”

Sometimes Abraham would be in the midst of things; at others he would be looking down from the top of the stairs listening in. His latest dance piece is inspired by all those memories of a happy community. An Untitled Love is set at a house party, complete with plastic-covered sofas and candid conversations, and its soundtrack is by neo-soul star D’Angelo.

Abraham, who has just turned 45, is a choreographer of great talent and range. His last two works seen in the UK were The Weathering, a fresh, exuberant and tender piece for the Royal Ballet, and Requiem, a left-field Afrofuturist work set to Mozart for his own company A.I.M.

He has an ability to reach across dance styles and tonalities, drawing on his past as a club kid, a musician, a student of contemporary dance and crucially, a black man growing up in the US. His choreography is very human, embedded in real life and experience, sometimes with anger and frustration (as in Pavement, about violence in and against the black community, or Untitled America, about mass incarceration), but there is also hope and warmth, particularly so in An Untitled Love.

“You know, I’ve made so many works that look at the injustice that we face as a people, and I really wanted to make something much more celebratory,” he says. The music the audience hears in the theatre before the show will be his parents’ “grown-folks music” from back in the day: Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, the Isley Brothers.

Kyle Abraham.
Kyle Abraham, at the Royal Opera House studios. Photograph: Andy Parsons/Times Newspapers Ltd

He wanted to honour his parents and the aunts and uncles he grew up with, and draw a line through their histories, from his parents meeting at a historically black college in the 60s, to him studying at a historically black college himself in the 90s (Morgan State University in Baltimore).

Abraham would listen to D’Angelo’s debut album, Brown Sugar, in his freshman year, when he was “trying to think about what my space was, how I looked at culture, how I looked at love and considering what that would even mean for me”. D’Angelo was a constant on his Discman. “I’m a gay man, right, but there’s something about the way he’s singing that song Lady that I can relate to. That sense of love he has in that song for this woman, it’s so palpable it makes me crave that music.”

In An Untitled Love, the songs weave together with his own feelings on history, family and connection. “This work is ultimately looking at love and self-love, and it has a lot of laughter, a lot of joy.”

Listening to him talk about it, you can’t help think of Steve McQueen’s film Lovers Rock, from the Small Axe series, set at a house party, with minimal dialogue and maximum dancing. Abraham hasn’t seen it: “But you’re the second person in the last 24 hours to mention it!”

He does talk about other films that influenced the characters and their arcs through the 70-minute piece, including the 2002 romcom Brown Sugar – no relation to the album – with Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan bonding over their childhood discovery of hip-hop, and another Lathan film, Love & Basketball (2000). Those references are an example of the way Abraham’s dance lives in the world of movies, music, popular culture, political life and social systems, just as we do as people, but which is not always true of things we see on stage – especially dance, which does escapism and otherworldliness so well.

Abraham calls D’Angelo’s music his “best friend”, especially so in “that first year in college when I didn’t really have many friends”. We have deep relationships, over decades, with songs we love. For Abraham, one of those is The Line, from D’Angelo’s second album, Voodoo, the gist of its lyrics about standing proud and being ready to take a risk. “That is one of the songs that still helps me get out of bed,” says Abraham, who has dealt with depression in the past. “Sometimes I need certain songs to really get me going, and that’s one that for years helped me start my day.”

The show has already premiered in the US, and D’Angelo came to see it in Brooklyn. “Meeting him was really trippy because I had to play it cool and be as calm as I could,” says Abraham. “But he was really favourable. There were a couple things that we did where he said, ‘Oh, I feel like I should incorporate that in my show.’” Abraham’s response? “Oh my God!” he laughs at his own delight at getting the ultimate seal of approval.

An Untitled Love is at King’s theatre, Edinburgh, 20-21 August


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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